5-0 Stunner! Manchester United gallops impressively past Bayer Leverkusen, into Champions League knockout stage

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A sluggish start to the David Moyes era at Manchester United keeps gaining speed. Another mighty puff of steam was acquired Wednesday as the fabled English club qualified in highest possible style for Champions League knockout stages, with a full match to spare.

United are now unbeaten in 11 consecutive contests across all competitions. Despite last weekend’s meek draw with Cardiff, Moyes’ men have crept to within sniffing distance of the Premier League’s top spot – and now they can focus on closing the gap, Champions League advancement secured thanks to a dominant 5-0 win Wednesday over a humbled Bayer Leverkusen.

Wayne Rooney assisted on Antonio Valencia’s early goal and then provided the stinging free kick that turned into an own goal and a 2-0 lead after just 30 minutes at the BayArena. Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling and Nani provided United’s second half goals in what must surely be the most impressive win yet under Moyes.

It was United’s biggest winning margin yet in a Champions League road contest.

Claiming victory on the road in Champions League is always an achievement. Winning by a five-spot at Bayer Leverkusen is worth an extra pat on the back; Sami Hyypia’s club, currently second in Bundesliga matters, had won its previous eight home matches in Champions League.

Manchester United meanwhile, with Spurs, Everton and Newcastle all ahead in league play before a Dec. 10 Champions League group stage closer against Shakhtar Donetsk, can surely use the relief. Wednesday’s display was as sharp as the score indicates, especially impressive considering Moyes’ team played without Marouane Fellaini (suspended) and Robin van Persie and Michael Carrick (both injured).

The subplot here was Ryan Giggs, who was starting in the world’s top club competition two days before his 40th birthday, a remarkable feat for any high-level athlete, much less one still performing at top-rev for one of the globe’s glamour clubs.

Shinji Kagawa took full advantage of his turn in Moyes’ starting 11, beginning his team’s first strike with a gritty win in midfield. From there it went to birthday boy Giggs and then to Rooney, whose ball across from the left was probably tougher than he made it look. Either way, Valencia was running hard to the far post to give his club a lead after 22 mins.

Kakawa provided so much of the push out of the midfield and the quality linking for the visitors Wednesday. And that link-up play with Rooney allowed the England international to do his thing, too.

Eight minutes later, Rooney was again the provider, this time whipping in a free kick from the left. His curler rocketing toward the far post with a menace, Bayer’s Emir Spahić did his best, but rose only high enough to help Rooney’s ball find the top corner for a 2-0 lead.

Despite the showpiece win, Manchester United could not officially claim the group’s top spot; Shakhtar Donetsk’s win over Real Sociedad means the group title remains in dispute, although United needs just a draw at home on Dec. 10 to finish in first. By claiming first in Group A, the Red Devils can help themselves avoid current champion Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain and those bedeviling sides from Spain, Barcelona and Real Madrid, in the next round.

Three things we learned: Chelsea v. Southampton

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LONDON — Chelsea beat Southampton 2-0 in the FA Cup semifinal at Wembley on Sunday, with the Blues setting up an FA Cup final clash with Manchester United on May 19.

Antonio Conte‘s side scored twice in the second half with Olivier Giroud and Alvaro Morata on the scoresheet against a sorry Saints outfit.

Here’s what we learned as Chelsea will set up a clash with Jose Mourinho.


GIROUD AN ELEGANT ASSASSIN

Olivier Giroud is quickly becoming a cult hero at Chelsea. The Frenchman dribbled delicately around three Southampton defenders and goalkeeper Alex McCarthy before prodding home to put his side ahead.

It was a elegant, yet clumsy, goal and summed up Giroud’s penchant for delivering goals of the highest difficulty.

Giroud has now been involved in 22 goals in 26 FA Cup appearances (15 goals, 7 assists) and the Frenchman is proving to be Chelsea’s first-choice central striker ahead of Alvaro Morata, although the Spaniard did grab a goal late on to wrap up the win.

Giroud has scored four goals in 13 appearances in all competitions since arriving from Arsenal in January but the way he holds the ball up and links with Eden Hazard is a huge plus for Conte. Giroud could also start up top with Morata if Chelsea tweak their system and at the age of 31 there is still plenty of life left in him and not just as a late sub, the role Conte earmarked for him.


COULD CONTE STAY…

Antonio Conte will likely still leave Chelsea at the end of the season but the Italian coach seems to badly want his time at Chelsea to end with a trophy.

But here’s a thought: if Chelsea beat Man United and somehow make it into the top four at Tottenham’s expense, will he remain in charge for the final year of his three-year contract?

The Blues cruised into the FA Cup final and looked fired up from the start as Eden Hazard pulled the strings and Giroud made a nuisance of himself.

Conte’s comments all season long suggest he will depart Chelsea this summer and seek a new project, but if he does so after winning the FA Cup (after being runners up last season) to go along with the PL title he won last season, and then finishing fifth, that’s not a bad two years in the PL.

The Italian will depart with his pride and reputation intact.


SOUTHAMPTON’S STRUGGLES

Saints are in the Premier League’s relegation zone for a reason and their total lack of confidence was clear for all to see at Wembley.

Mark Hughes‘ men have five games left to save themselves but it almost seems as if Saints’ players have resigned themselves to relegation from the Premier League despite sitting just four points from safety. One win in their last 21 PL games (that came against West Brom) tells the story of a side crumbling before our eyes.

After they shipped 12 goals in four Premier League, all of them defeats, Hughes has set Saints up in a 5-3-1-1 formation to try and make them tougher to break down.

It is working, at least defensively, with a 0-0 draw at Leicester on Thursday, but going forward they totally lack any cohesion and only created three real chances on Sunday as Shane Long made a hash of a great opportunity, Charlie Austin hit the post and Nathan Redmond tested Willy Caballero.

Saints are in a really bad place as they now have to find a way to stop themselves hurtling towards relegation. Their game at home against Bournemouth next weekend is a must win. Simple.

Chelsea joins Man Utd in FA Cup Final

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Chelsea will meet old pal Jose Mourinho in the FA Cup Final after beating Southampton 2-0 at Wembley Stadium on Sunday.

Olivier Giroud and Alvaro Morata scored the goals for Antonio Conte‘s men, whose date with Manchester United comes at the same venue on May 19.

Southampton will turn its attention back to the relegation battle, four points behind 17th place Swansea City.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Willian hit the cross bar with an early effort as Chelsea looked very much up for the semifinal.

Olivier Giroud had a 39th minute chance zip wide of the frame, as Chelsea posted nine of the first half’s 11 shot attempts while holding 60 percent possession.

Saints would have been happy to get to the locker room at nil-nil.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Twenty-eight seconds into the second half: That’s when Giroud scored, with Chelsea’s first long ball knocked down by Eden Hazard on the edge of the 18 and played to the Frenchman.

Giroud cut between two Saints defenders and goalkeeper Alex McCarthy to stab home with his right foot.

Hazard curled an effort of his own wide in the 48th minute.

Saints snapped to life, and Shane Long touched around Wily Caballero but too strong to equalize at Wembley.

Nathan Redmond forced a wild save out of Caballero in the 72nd minute, and nearly claimed the corner.

McCarthy tipped a Hazard shot over the bar minutes later.

Morata put it to bed on a cross from his in-tune assist man Cesar Azpilicueta.

The finish was thrilling nevertheless, with Charlie Austin hitting the far post and Saints getting a goal line clearance at the other end.

Wenger: Praise after exit announcement “more than I deserve”

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Arsene Wenger doesn’t seem like the type to go on a victory lap, but the Arsenal boss is handling his resignation and the accompanying praise with pure class.

[ RECAP: Arsenal 4-1 West Ham ]

Wenger announced the end of his long Arsenal tenure earlier this week, and has been met by heaps of praise from ex-players, fans, current Gunners, and even rivals.

The Frenchman addressed the plaudits following a 4-1 win over West Ham United at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday. From the BBC:

“I would like to thank everyone who has been very nice and kind and praised me more than I deserved it. I would like to say thank you everyone. It’s been a great period for me and I’m thankful for that.”

Arsenal punished West Ham after the Irons equalized through Marko Arnautovic, getting a lucky goal from Aaron Ramsey and two fine finishes from Alexandre Lacazette in the win.

“I was focused on winning the game. We just tried to be professional and do our job even when the circumstances are different. It was a good team spirit and good preparation for Thursday.

“I think we constructed patiently. We didn’t make big mistakes. First of all before winning a trophy, you need to get through the semi-finals. This is a good way to prepare – scoring goals against a strong West Ham team who have done well recently.”

Next up: A huge test in the UEFA Europa League semifinals, with Atletico Madrid visiting for Thursday’s first leg. Wenger rested several big names, and Atleti has just one win from its last four matches (including a Madrid Derby draw at the Bernabeu).

WATCH: Chelsea’s Giroud scores 27 seconds after halftime

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Southampton held firm against Chelsea’s challenge for 45 minutes of Sunday’s FA Cup semifinal at Wembley Stadium.

Well, 45 minutes and 27 seconds.

[ RECAP: Arsenal 4-1 West Ham ]

The first long ball of the second half saw Chelsea’s Eden Hazard leap to trap, and the Belgian played a quick ball forward to his striker.

That’s Olivier Giroud, who dribbled between two defenders and Saints goalkeeper Alex McCarthy to stab home with the outside of his right foot.